CHARLES DARWIN MAY have conceived the idea of natural selection in the mid 1800s, and Herbert Spencer the complementary phrase “survival of the fittest”, but in an ever-changing world it's still taken a century and a half – and the scientific expertise of skincare brand La Prairie – to isolate the essence of existence and bottle it.
“We offer agelessness,” teases Lynne Florio, global brand president for La Prairie, at an intimate press breakfast at the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa in Interlaken, Switzerland. A bevy of writers from around the world has been flown in for the occasion, with not even a hint of what is to be launched (though the header on the itinerary declares it will be something called “Cellular Swiss Ice Crystal”, a product that yields only one Google hit, for a patent application). We know it's La Prairie, and we can assume that it has something to do with Interlaken, as the brand's Swiss hometown is some 150 kilometres to the west in Montreux.
The brand has held us in suspense for a few months' worth of planning, so what's another few minutes? Florio verbally traces the history of La Prairie, from the birth of Clinique La Prairie on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1931, to the skincare line's launch in 1978 with just 10 products, to its 35th birthday this year. “Eternal youth was the name of the game – for those who could afford it,” explains Florio. It's a pursuit that not only shaped La Prairie at its inception and over the ensuing three-and-a-half decades, but also continues to influence the label in various forms.
But wait, you say. La Prairie already offers a full suite of anti-ageing products, no? And right you would be. But Florio elaborates, “La Prairie was almost more known for, ‘Oh, I see my first wrinkle, I see my first age spot, let me go to La Prairie.' Our products tended to be more in the repair area of fixing, correcting, improving conditions of ageing that were seen. And a few years ago we started thinking we needed to be there before that happened.”
In an age already replete with miracle ingredients (no shortage of them proprietary to the brand), La Prairie began to match its laboratory discoveries with this unploughed category. “We didn't come across something until about two years ago, when Daniel [Stangl, director of innovation for La Prairie] told us about these plants.”
And so we arrive at the secret, hidden high in the Swiss Alps: a trio of plants in equal parts beautiful and robust, that have adapted to survive in the most gruelling conditions. An avid mountaineer, Stangl stumbled across the specimens on one of his adventures, immediately grasping the incredible natural miracle it took for any plant to live through even one night, much less flourish against the odds and the elements.
The first plant uncovered was the purple saxifrage, discovered at the summit of the Dom, one of the highest peaks in the country. A small plant that grows only five centimetres tall, it bears pale violet petals that stand in stark contrast to the snowcovered earth surrounding it, the only flowering plant in the world able to thrive in its situation – and ergo, in possession of extremely protective cellular mechanisms eminently worth replicating for skincare applications.
Soldanella alpina – colloquially called the alpine snowbell – lies dormant throughout winter, rousing in early spring as water trickles through spaces in the frozen snow to reach the soil, awakening the root and inviting it to germinate. As the life cycle continues, the plant literally melts a home in the ground in which to nestle, a cone-shaped, many-petalled head then pushing through to the surface to find air and light. By the time the snow has gone, it's almost fully grown.
Three may be considered a crowd if it's romance you seek, but in the anti-ageing game, there's plenty of room for nature's bounty. And so La Prairie threw in an ingredient that had already proven effective in its Cellular Power collection: Swiss snow algae, which creates red-pigmented microcrystals to protect itself from extreme UV and light in the winter, while resting underneath as red spores develop, giving the entire sheet of snow a vermillion tint come summer and signalling harvest time.
This survivor-organism trifecta was combined into one Swiss Ice Crystal Complex, and the very one that Google revealed is currently being patented. Taking the essence of the three plants, it combats stress factors internal and external: UV, lack of sleep, anxiety, weather changes, pollution. What can save a plant or alga from its demise can equally protect skin from the ravages of the modern world: preserving the renewal potential of skin stem cells, strengthening the skin's defence against oxidative stress, fighting free radicals and protecting mitochondrial DNA to secure cellular energy supply.
If the reality lives up to the theory, then this is a product line that will be revolutionary – not some quick-fix juice but a sustainable fountain of youth from which your skin can drink. And so La Prairie is taking it slow with the concept, launching with an almost stingy two-product global release comprising a Cellular Swiss Ice Crystal Cream and Cellular Swiss Ice Crystal Dry Oil.
With the change in aim – to fight the first onset of ageing rather than repair existing signs – the target audience seemingly skews younger. “I don't want to get it confused that we're going for a much younger customer,” corrects Florio. “We're going after a customer that is slightly earlier in the skin-ageing process than our repair segment. You could be 50 or 60 and never have your first wrinkle until then, because your genetics are perfect.”
That said, with skincare education so much more widespread in this day and age, consumers are realising that age-delay products are relevant starting in their 20s – so the survival-skincare line will appeal to an appreciably wide audience, in particular with its range of application, suitable for anyone who's had dermatological procedures, travels frequently, or is seeing skin changes due to the weather, as well as those who fall into the large umbrella of not wanting to age.
The dry oil, in particular, is tipped to be a best seller, what with the popularity of this genre of moisturiser among beauty connoisseurs and junkies alike in recent months. The texture of this product is amazing – almost weightless, and sinking into the skin smoothly and quickly. Consumers now know that oils – whether your skin is lizard-like or a grease machine – are your face's friend, able to hydrate and, paradoxically, stifle oil production (often, we now know, the skin's way of compensating for lack of moisture). Used in conjunction with the cream, either mixed together or layered, the oil acts as a barrier to hold water in.
The duet is slated for release at La Prairie counters this month, and no doubt a full suite of Cellular Swiss Ice Crystal products will follow in the months to come. And while early adopters are touting this as the latest miracle ingredient to hit the market, Florio is philosophical about the hoopla. “I think we all want to believe that there's a miracle ingredient out there. I think we wouldn't do what we do if we didn't think that we were finding miracle ingredients. But I think they change. A new miracle ingredient today won't be the same one we had three years ago. Our job is to keep putting out something that's better than what we had before.”